Yesterday, at the American Enterprise Institute Newt Gingrich gave a speech on national security titled, "America at Risk: Camus, National Security, and Afghanistan." Let's forget for a second about the sheer hilarity of Gingrich giving a speech on Camus and national security, and focus on what he actually said and the consequences of such rhetoric. The basic premise of his speech is that he believes "sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the US and the world as we know it."
Gingrich has latched onto this "Islamophobic" rhetoric in the past couple weeks. First, his speech on the building of a Muslim Community Center at Ground Zero, where he warned that "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization." In the same speech he argued that we should look to Saudi Arabia as a standard bearer on religious freedoms saying, "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." He followed those remarks up with an article in Human Events this week, again warning of the creeping influence of Sharia law into American society. He writes: "Some radical Islamists use terrorism as a tactic to impose sharia but others use non-violent methods -- a cultural, political, and legal jihad that seeks the same totalitarian goal even while claiming to repudiate violence."
Gingrich obviously wants to be president and thinks that promoting fear and xenophobic hysteria is a good way to play to a certain audience. But he should consider the consequences of such rhetoric. There has been a rise in Islamophobic speeches, protests and organizations in recent weeks and months. From Brooklyn, NY, to Temecula, CA, there have been protests against Mosques being built in neighborhoods. A group in Virginia calls themselves the Virginia Anti-Sharia Task Force (VAST). In Florida there was even a Koran burning party that was organized. There are a number of theories as to what is causing this uptick, ranging from a decade of war to the economic downturn. Regardless, when leaders of the conservative establishment like Gingrich sink to such paranoid and craven politicization, it justifies and promotes this sort of behavior.
Mayor Bloomberg had a great response to this type of behavior when Sarah Palin expressed her opposition to ground zero plans: "Everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness, and I think it's a great message for the world that unlike in other places where they might actually ban people from wearing a burqa or they might actually keep people from building a building, that's not what America was founded on, nor is it what America should become."
But the frame that Gingrich is promoting is not only un-American and counter to our values, it is also counterproductive to our anti-terrorism efforts. First, at a strategic level, it plays into al Qaeda's framework that the West is at war with Islam. As Malcolm Nance, a former military intelligence officer and author of An End to al-Qaeda, recently told the American Prospect's Adam Serwer: "When you frame it as a fight against Islam and Islamic fundamentalism ... you're almost encouraging Osama bin Laden's line of thinking. He loves this idea that this is seen as a clash between Islam and the West; he wants that, he thrives on that."
At another level, this fear mongering and overreaction serves to diminish America's resilience, an important component of America's counterterrorism strategy. The National Security Strategy says that resilience is, "the ability to adapt to changing conditions and prepare for, withstand, and rapidly recover from disruption." There are many facets of this approach, from a resilient infrastructure to a resilience economy. However an important part is also a resilient society that does not abandon its core values as soon as they're challenged. Yet a decade after 9/11 Gingrich is ready to give up on America's strength and resiliency. In addition, Stephen Flynn, president of the Center for National Policy, who has been the leader for years on promoting resilience, says that there is also a deterrent value to resilience saying that, "if an adversary believes that Americans are well-prepared to prevent, withstand, and rapidly recover from acts of terrorism, the appeal of engaging in such acts would be diminished." Basically, by his hysteria, Gingrich is feeding into al Qaeda's goal of promoting a hysterical reaction.
Finally, and perhaps most dangerously, this type of rhetoric and behavior isolates and vilifies the Muslim American community -- a crucial partner in combating radicalization and terrorism. Former NYPD and LAPD Chief William Bratton described his interactions with Muslim Americans, calling them "extraordinarily law abiding community." Robert Mueller has testified that, "many of our cases are a result of the cooperation from the Muslim community in the United States." And we have seen time and again that Muslim American groups and individuals play an important role in disrupting terrorist plots and preventing domestic radicalization. Examples include The Council on American Islamic Relations' (CAIR) assistance with the FBI that led to the arrest of the five northern Virginia men who were recently sentenced in a Pakistani court to Aliou Nasse, the Senegalese Muslim immigrant who saw smoke coming from an unattended SUV parked in Times Square. Muslim American groups and individuals have repeatedly proven to be the most important partner in combating terrorism. Isolating and vilifying Muslim Americans, while we should be creating ties and increasing cooperation, is simply counterproductive.
Gingrich's behavior denies the strength and resiliency of America. It has me saying words I never thought I would utter: I miss the rhetoric of George W. Bush. After all he clearly said, "Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America."